Music Making in Historic Houses

A new short film, 'Sweet Noise: Making Music at Vaucluse House', documents preparations for a musical performance in one of Sydney Living Museums' historic houses.

Each of us carries in our head a portable jukebox – a collection of favourite pieces of music – that at any moment may start to play. These are the tunes we have collected over our lives and may include the latest hit we’ve heard on a passing car radio or music associated with some of those bigger emotional moments we experience. While each of our playlists is different and may have very personal associations, we are all influenced by the times we live in. Regardless of how original we perceive our musical taste to be, all of us are affected by fashion, technology, education and social structure.

Try to imagine taking your personal jukebox into the ornate and gilded drawing room of an historic house, like Vaucluse House, and then press ‘play’. What piece will come to mind? Whatever your musical choice, it is unlikely to bear any resemblance to the tunes in the heads of the Wentworth family who lived in the house between the late 1820s and early 1860s. It is possible that there may be one or two tunes in common but you would not recognise most of the music this family had experienced while living in their Sydney home. How then do we recreate the musical world of our historic houses?

Curators and heritage staff at Sydney Living Museums interpret these historic properties, interiors and gardens through extensive research and with a finely honed expertise. This interpretation includes grappling with the less tangible elements of a house’s history such as the making and use of food and the plantings in its gardens. Similarly, we can uncover the sound heritage of early Sydney through the instruments, sheet music and archival accounts belonging to a number of our properties. 

'Sweet Noise: Making Music at Vaucluse House' documents the musical preparation for a major public event at Vaucluse House with Matthew Stephens, research librarian at Sydney Living Museums, Ron Overs, piano technician, and James Doig, pianist. Matthew talks about how and why he selected two Australian piano pieces from the 1850s, ‘The City of Sydney Polka’ and ‘Australian Flowers’, while Ron demonstrates his conservation technique on an 1860s Collard & Collard grand piano, and James discusses and performs the two pieces on the newly restored piano as he prepares for the performance.  

About the Author

Sydney Living Museums Image
Dr Matthew Stephens
Research Librarian
Collections and Access
Dr Matthew Stephens is research librarian at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection with a strong interest in the history of books and libraries in New South Wales. His recently completed PhD explored the early history of the Australian Museum Library.

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